Finally, after years of wandering nomadic in Atlanta's restaurant scene — from his own failed Blais five years ago to his star-maker stint last year on Bravo's "Top Chef" — Blais has arrived.
And with what? Burgers.
Certainly, the modern, molecular take on Southern classics he imagined at Home in Buckhead had him heading in the right direction. But he and owner Tom Catherall of Here to Serve Restaurants (Twist, Shout, Prime, Aja) were sure to wear on one another after a short spell, and the whole arrangement seemed to be nothing more than a publicity stunt anyway. After just a few short months, Blais lived up to his wanderer rep and left.
Flip Burger Boutique allows Blais to play with the whimsical goofiness that makes him, well, him. And the super casual concept is more forgiving than fine dining. Atlanta might not be ready for the molecular gastronomic equations calculated by kitchens such as Chicago's Alinea or New York's WD-50, but boutique burgers it can handle. And for a guy who's never had a hand in the restaurant biz, Mills' attention to every minute detail is paying off for both of them.
Other than being excessively crowded, even on weeknights, there is little to complain about with Flip. The crowds and a no-reservations policy create waits, but everything moves very quickly.
Beyond that, this jazzy joint is more fun than a barrel of burgers, which are beef, house-ground of short ribs, hangar steak and brisket. The mix makes them fattier — and juicier — than a burger made with leaner meat.
Smaller than average, but certainly larger than sliders, the size encourages ordering more than one — and so does the price (ranging from $6.50 to $11). Think of them as — dare I say it? — tapas burgers. Take a group of friends. Take your kids (there are always kids in this dining room). Take your wife. Your boss. Take a first date.
Then try as many of these little round marvels as you can wrap your chops around: a country-fried burger smeared with tangy pimento cheese and topped with house-made pickles dipped in house-made ketchup; a Japanese Kobe burger crowned with seared foie gras, truffle butter, bread-and-butter pickles, onion-and-red-wine jam and frisee; a "pate melt" of ground veal and pork sandwiched with Dijon and cornichons. What fun.
The menu fluctuates but typically offers between 15 and 20 different burgers, all served on fluffy, buttery brioche buns (the kitchen rotates a stable stock of around 30 burgers). Condiments such as smoked mayo and blue cheese foam (which only heightens the already heady experience of tempura-fried rutabaga) are all made in house. And should you long for something nonmeaty, there are savvy salads, such as a Greek slaw of cabbage and pureed feta-and-yogurt dressing, lemon juice and olives or a Caesar bejeweled with tiny smoked anchovies to clear the fat from your palate.
Deep frying is its own art form at Flip, and the aforementioned rutabaga leads a formidable pack of fried frenzy — sweet potato tots taste very special when smeared through some smoky mayo, and "vodka battered" onion rings as well as plain old fries are elevated here to new heights.
The milkshakes, all quick-frozen with "LN2" (liquid nitrogen), are brought to the table trailing a cloudlike fog. The most talked-about flavor is the creamy Krispy Kreme concoction (yes, it tastes exactly like drinking a KK doughnut, only very cold), but the best flavor is the groovy green pistachio laced with white truffles. Drink them with a meal, or order them for dessert.
Blais is on hand, playing with fog-emitting liquid nitrogen drinks at the bar or prepping at the burger bar toward the back of the dining room when he's not cooking alongside operating chef Mark Nanna. On a first visit, he came to the table at the end of the meal and asked how things were, which prompted a short but detailed discussion of the various ins and outs of creating gourmet burgers.
"But did you have fun?" he finally asked.
Yes, I did.
Food: Boutique burgers
Service: Excellent (full disclosure: I was recognized as a critic by waitresses, which may have been a factor, though not by bartenders). Tables turn quickly, making wait times less than expected.
Price range: $$
Credit cards: Visa, Mastercard, American Express, Discover
Hours of operation: Open for lunch and dinner from to Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Closed from 3 to 5 p.m. weekdays.
Best dishes: Kobe beef burger with seared foie gras, Southern country-fried burger with pimento cheese, bacon and cheese burger, po "boyger" of shrimp and old bay seasoning and fried lemon slices, fried rutabaga, onion rings, pistachio milkshake, Krispy Kreme milkshake
Vegetarian selections: Mushroom veggie burger with goat cheese and arugula
Children: Tons of fun for the whole family
Parking: Adjacent lot (usually very crowded), lot across the street during evening hours only, and on-street neighborhood parking
Reservations: No. But call if you have more than 10 in your party
Wheelchair access: Yes
Smoking: Patio only
Noise level: Very high
Address, telephone: 1587 Howell Mill Road, 404-352-3547
Web site: www.flipburgerboutique.com
KEY TO RATINGS
Sets the standard for fine dining in the region.
One of the best in the Atlanta area.
Merits a drive if you're looking for this kind of dining.
A worthy addition to its neighborhood, but food may be hit or miss.
The food is more miss than hit.
Restaurants that do not meet these criteria may be rated
means more than $75;
means $75 and less;
means $50 and less;
means $25 and less;
means $15 and less. (The price code represents a meal for one that includes appetizer, entree and dessert without including tax, tip and cocktails.)